Marilyn Monroe as an idea has taken on a meaning all its own—the blonde bombshell, and the ultimate embodiment of a certain type of mythic femininity, something that’s closer to the idea of femininity than the real thing. But the new movie Blonde, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates and starring Ana de Armas as Monroe, attempts to excavate the person from underneath all of the myth. Here’s our take on the idea of Marilyn Monroe as the perfect woman, and how it’s time to dig deeper past the one-dimensional symbol of Marilyn to better understand the nature of celebrity femininity.
When does a person stop being a person and become a symbol? Marilyn Monroe as an idea has taken on a meaning all its own—the blonde bombshell, and the ultimate embodiment of a certain type of mythic femininity, something that’s closer to the idea of femininity than the real thing. We all know the iconic images of Marilyn, holding her dress over a gust of air, performing in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or singing “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy. When does a person stop being a person and become a symbol? Marilyn Monroe as an idea has taken on a meaning all its own—the blonde bombshell, and the ultimate embodiment of a certain type of mythic femininity, something that’s closer to the idea of femininity than the real thing. We all know the iconic images of Marilyn, holding her dress over a gust of air, performing in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or singing “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy. But the new movie Blonde, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates and starring Ana de Armas as Monroe, attempts to excavate the person from underneath all of the myth. Here’s our take on the idea of Marilyn Monroe as the perfect woman, and how it’s time to dig deeper past the one-dimensional symbol of Marilyn to better understand the nature of celebrity femininity.
Edward R Murrow: “Your picture has been on the cover of almost all popular magazines hasn’t it?”
- Person to Person
Like fellow 20th-century icons Elvis, Madonna, and Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe is firmly now more of a symbol than a person. Of course, on some level that was intentional. Born as the brunette Norma Jean Mortensen, and later baptized as Norma Jean Baker, Marilyn consciously crafted her signature look and persona. Like all movie stars, she projected an image of herself, though hers was a particularly extreme version of self-creation. She also had both onscreen and offscreen personas, which kept threatening to bleed into each other—especially in coverage of her marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, which were forerunners of the way we experience modern celebrity news. And Marilyn has also influenced our current notions of celebrity in other far-reaching ways. To this day, she’s American culture’s most definitive ideal of the sex symbol: utterly entrancing to men, with a combination of knowing coyness and naivete.
Joyce Carol Oates: “She’s taken on a mythic quality, and she’s a little bit estranged from herself.”
Plenty of contemporary stars have channeled her “mythic feminine” energy and tried to emulate it. Mariah Carey purchased Marilyn’s piano for over $600,000, and literally named her daughter Monroe. Lindsay Lohan recreated an iconic Marilyn photoshoot for the cover of New York Magazine during a chaotic period where, similar to Marilyn’s brief stints in a psychiatric ward, she was spending time in and out rehab. Recently, Kim Kardashian took this trend to its natural conclusion by actually wearing one of Marilyn’s original dresses. When Marilyn shows up as a fictional character in plenty of stories, she doesn’t even need to be written as a fleshed-out character; just evoking her immediately evokes an abstraction of femininity, glamor and fame.
This process of transforming Marilyn from a person into an idea started while she was alive. In an early career scandal when she was revealed to have posed for nude photos, she responded by refusing to be ashamed. And this established a pattern for how she was able to have it both ways—posing nude as an obvious sex symbol, while still continuing to feel somehow innocent. This worked in part because people didn’t perceive her as having much artifice or deception, but instead tapping into some natural sensuality and womanly zest for life that just flowed from her.
Marilyn began to be seen as epitomizing a certain primal womanhood, as if she were better at accessing a certain spirit that most women had lost touch with. This way of looking at Marilyn made her such an effective celebrity. But these descriptions of Marilyn as “not really acting” and somehow simply embodying also ended up undervaluing her talent and effort as an actress. And they could sometimes push her to take on aspects of femininity that didn’t come as naturally to her–like playing the ideal domestic woman during her marriage to All-American baseball hero Joe DiMaggio.
“She had no technique. It was all the truth. It was only Marilyn. But she was Marilyn plus.”
- The Unheard Tapes
In becoming a symbol, Marilyn was able to achieve a stratospheric level of fame, universality, and cultural significance. But she also ceased to be a person. There’s something intentionally generic about the way she was, and is, perceived. Even those who use her as inspiration often distance themselves from her as a specific individual. Andy Warhol’s iconic pop art of Marilyn intentionally played on her as a shared cultural image that–not unlike a can of Campbell’s soup–was so ubiquitous it was basically divorced from the original Marilyn and took on its own meaning for every person. Bernie Taupin, who wrote the iconic Elton John song “Candle In The Wind” about Marilyn Monroe, went out of his way to tell people he was not a fan of hers. Taupin claimed he was simply able to use her image as a way to discuss, quote, “anybody, any writer, actor, actress, or musician who died young and sort of became this iconic picture of Dorian Gray, that thing where they simply stopped aging. It’s a beauty frozen in time.”
Megan Fox: “she’s not someone I would want to emulate but she’s art her image is art by this point”
But who was the “Real” Marilyn?
But if Marilyn Monroe’s mythos was constructed, someone had to be doing the construction—and that someone was the real person, Norma Jean. Norma Jean is the quote-unquote “real” subject of both the written and filmed versions of Blonde. Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Blonde is an attempt to imagine Marilyn’s inner life, something that none of us as observers in the present have access to. Oates attempts to answer the question of what it would be like to be the real person at the center of this carefully constructed symbol. Imagining being Marilyn Monroe in turn raises a whole host of contradictions and challenges around being a certain type of woman, or around being a person in general.
Of course, there’s no way we can understand the actual private thoughts and feelings of Marilyn Monroe–that’s why Oates has always been clear that her novel is fiction rather than history, and the Blonde film directed by Andrew Dominik is also inherently speculative. Yet a certain level of imagination is necessary to ever try to access l Monroe’s inner experience. Dominik said Blonde is trying to explore the ways she was living on the “edge,” and it has “something in it to offend everyone.” Blonde aims to mine the gap between the public and private Marilyns–and we do know there were contradictions at least between the way she was treated in public and the way she was treated in private. Though she became famous and successful by being a public sex symbol, in her private relationships men became extremely possessive, and wanted her to stop doing the very things that brought her to their attention.
People became possessive of her, which contributed to the image of Marilyn Monroe as someone who existed entirely for men. Though Marilyn was treated as a powerful embodiment of womanhood, that vision of womanhood is still typically seen as solely there to service the male gaze. Even more humanizing portrayals of her, like My Week With Marilyn which spotlights her messier side, tend to still depict her from a man’s point of view. But Dominik says Blonde is trying to capture some of the “ambiguous” aspects of sexuality that Marilyn brought out in that time period. As the first NC-17 movie to appear on Netflix, the movie will have freedom to fully explore the themes of sex and desire in Marilyn’s life–which in itself is revolutionary when you consider the heavily censored era Marilyn lived in and the degree to which her sexuality onscreen was always purely suggested rather than explicit. And a female editor was reportedly brought in by Netflix to curb the quote “excesses” of the movie. Blonde also seems to be a surprisingly feminist take on its subject. Star Ana de Armas said that director Andrew Dominik, quote:
“Wanted the world to experience what it felt like to not only be Marilyn, but also Norma Jeane.”
Even Oates herself said the movie quote, “Succeeded in showing the experience of Norma Jeane Baker from her perspective.”In these ways, it could be similar to Greta Gerwig’s upcoming Barbie movie, exploring another icon of constructed femininity based on stereotypical standards of beauty. Like Barbie, Marilyn Monroe is a partly artificial, white, blonde idea of what women quote-unquote “should” be. And both stories have the potential to go deeper in asking what it feels like to actually be that ideal we’re told to chase.
Constructing Celebrity Femininity Then and Now
So what’s the best modern parallel to Marilyn Monroe? Surprisingly enough, it’s probably reality TV. Some of our most popular reality shows are about getting a peek “behind” the curtain of celebrity femininity. The ideal femininity embodied by the Kardashian family or Real Housewives is something that we constantly see being constructed both by the women themselves and by the cameras and crew. In fact, Kim’s whole career has been about constructing her body according to modern standards of femininity while simultaneously shaping those standards–all the way back to her very first appearance on Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
There’s something inherently contradictory here–we’re compelled to try to understand these celebrities while knowing we never can truly get inside their experience. But perhaps this attempt to search for more depth is the point. Emma Cooper, director of the documentary The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes, told The Guardian quote, “To me, Marilyn had always been a bit one-dimensional. By the end of this process, she’d become a much more real person to me, with more modernity as a woman than I’d ever seen in her.”
Will Blonde be able to actually depict the reality of being Marilyn Monroe? No—that would be impossible. But there is value in updating longstanding ideas of mythic, perfect femininity, taking them from the 1950s and 60s and moving them to an era where our understanding focuses more on interiority. Even if we can never understand Marilyn Monroe, she can remain a mirror for understanding the ideas she represented—and thanks to these deeper portrayals, people will keep trying to understand her for years to come.
“We position ourselves in the world like actors. And we’re presenting a persona to the world, and some people have no idea what the reality is.”